By Tom Galluzzo and Joel Reed

The dream of robots in retail

Robots and shoppers side by side inside retail stores has been a dream of retailers for decades. From basic tasks such as scanning shelves or cleaning floors to complex applications such as stocking shelves or shopping for customers inside stores, retailers envision a world where robots provide a more efficient and reliable operation while improving consumer experiences. 

The capabilities of robots rarely develop at the same rate as people’s expectations, and much like driverless vehicles, the full capabilities of robots in retail are not yet fully realized. We are approaching that reality little by little every day, and the path is a deliberate development process impacted by a variety of factors. Most transformations driven by technical innovation occur in stages. Before we routinely purchased items online, the internet was limited to electronic communication and news consumption. Today, autonomous car technology is limited to useful features such as lane detection, collision warning, and emergency braking. But these current limitations do not stop companies such as Uber and Google from trying to become the Ford of the future.

A Robot Carrying a Box as an Example of Robots in Retail.

The reality of robots in retail

Even though technology is changing at a rapid pace, no robotics solution exists today that can handle the full spectrum of objects and react to situations the same way a human can. It is comparatively easy to make computers and robots exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, but it is extremely difficult to give machines the skills of even a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility1“Moravec’s paradox.” Wikipedia. For retail applications, there are no robots, algorithms, or dexterous robotic hands on the market today that are able to handle the wide variability of SKUs from a mobile platform and interact around people the way a human can instinctively react to their environment. 

The technical challenges are vast. Nonetheless, advancements have been made, and there are practical applications of retail robots in stores today:

  • Autonomous floor cleaners
  • Autonomous shelf/inventory scanners
  • Unloaders that scan and sort items unloaded from trucks
  • Pickup towers/vending machines that dispense online orders within stores

For existing applications, the current technology is adequate to perform simple tasks and provide early robotic experiences with the promise of the future2Corinna Underwood. “Robots in Retail – Examples of Real Industry Applications.. But these solutions do not form the platform by which in-store shopping robots will stand upon. Solving discrete tasks of 

navigation and path planning does not necessarily translate to robots moving around in stores picking merchandise for online orders alongside in-store shoppers.

Retailers’ roadmap to the future 

Retailers are under a great deal of competitive pressure today to offer consumers more product choices, smaller order sizes, and fast fulfillment. As such, they are experimenting with automation in a variety of new fulfillment formats,  from building micro-fulfillment centers and dark stores to leveraging current brick and mortar stores as mini fulfillment centers.

To be competitive in the future and to achieve the dream of robots inside stores alongside shoppers, retailers will follow a roadmap that relies on an accelerating pace of robotic innovations and collaboration with competent automation partners. Retailers who participate in the robotic development process today will be best positioned for tomorrow. We already see this in other industries. For instance, in the automotive industry, Ford is pursuing this strategy to protect its market position with an investment in Argo AI3Ford Media Center. “Ford Invests in Argo AI, A New Artificial Intelligence Company, In Drive for Autonomous Vehicle Leadership”.

IAM Robotics, now and in the future

At IAM Robotics, we are focused on the science of robotics and making automation valuable and practical for retailers right now, in the near future, and far beyond. IAM Robotics has developed the world’s first  commercially-viable mobile picking robots, which is the centerpiece of a robotic labor system that allows retailers to offer a greater assortment of products in warehouses without adding additional labor. Our platform positions us to offer real value to retailers right now and to  engage with motivated partners who dream of realizing the full capabilities of robots inside retail stores. 

IAM Robotics believes in four principles that serve as our development foundation, and which we believe to be the primary keys to future retail robotic advancements: 

  • Sensing: advanced state-of-the-art computer vision to enable high performance decision making for navigation, safety and human interaction
  • Perception: the ability to identify and manipulate, or interact, with objects and to navigate through environments designed for humans
  • Manipulation: innovative ways to handle objects of various sizes and weights and with high-levels of dexterity for highly reliable but consumer-friendly, picking
  • Robustness: a solid, safe, durable, and stable platform required to balance the needs and trade-offs between operational efficiency and consumer experience

 Together, with our retail partners, we aim to change the paradigm of retail competition. We will develop a viable roadmap that leads to the retail robots of the future while realizing valuable applications along the way.